What to Look for in an Employee Wellness Program

Darlene Marshall
Darlene Marshall
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When you think about employer-provided wellness programs what comes to mind? Many people think of tech companies in the 2010s with meditation rooms, napping pods, flexible workspaces, and kitchenettes full of snacks.

Since then, meaningful wellness programs have evolved beyond the open floor plan office with Friday drink carts. Effective employee wellness programs now focus on supporting workers’ autonomy, mental health, and overall well-being. 

Let's learn more below.

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What Are Wellness Programs?

Employee wellness programs are employer-provided initiatives aimed at supporting workforce health and well-being. These programs might take the form of weekly wellness offerings, online classes, workplace perks, swag for remote workers, or in-office benefits like massages. They can either be staff-supported or provided by qualified outside partners.

Originally, workplace wellness programs aimed at keeping employees physically healthy. Research into insurance premiums showed that healthier employees missed fewer days of work, so employers encouraged them to exercise, walk at lunch, or provide healthy eating programs. Over time evidence showed there were additional additive benefits, such as higher productivity, engagement, optimism, and the overall benefits of greater well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the workplace wellness trend, highlighting that there’s far more wellness than physical health. Effective employee wellness programs support the employee’s well-being and nurture a strong workplace community.

Benefits of Wellness Programs

There’s a large body of research that shows happier employees with greater well-being will be more productive. They’ll also be more engaged with work culture, the goals of their teams, and the company overall. The benefits of meaningful wellness programs go far beyond increasing productivity.

Gallup estimates that 75% of medical costs are due to preventable conditions and 20% of corporate expenses are related to employee turnover. Gallup further estimates there is $322 billion of lost global productivity caused by burnout. An effective wellness program can help.

Healthy, happy, thriving people take fewer sick days, are 40% less likely to experience regular burnout, are 50% less likely to report daily stress and overwhelm, and are half as likely to report daily sadness and anger. Translation: high employee wellness means greater resilience to stress, challenge, and trauma.

Wellness programs don’t only improve absenteeism, but also presenteeism. Those with higher well-being not only take fewer sick days but also tend to be more engaged and “present” with their work and one another.

From that greater engagement with one another those thriving employees are more likely to contribute to the work community and culture, further decreasing turnover, decreasing loneliness, and fostering greater belonging.


Examples of Wellness Programs 

Effective wellness programs focus beyond physical health to encompass employee well-being. This includes developing a supportive culture, offering mental health initiatives, and having programs, benefits packages, and resources that help meet employees’ foundational needs.

Examples of successful wellness focus cultured include having policies that allow employees the flexibility to lead fulfilling lives. This might include flexible work hours that respect workers preferred hours or life demands such as parenting. It could also include flexible working locations or hybrid working policies to allow employees to work in ways that suit their optimal productivity.

While some industries or types of work can’t allow for that flexibility, companies should have clearly defined and communicated policies so workers can know what to expect. Further, successful wellness-focused cultures also reinforce good work/life boundaries such as having policies for non-working hours to prevent burnout.

These productivity and optimization policies balance opportunities to connect, bond, and build community.

Another aspect of successful wellness programming is clear communication about the benefits offered. This can include health insurance options, 401k and financial planning support, and other perks. For a wellness program to be at its best employees must know it exists, what the options are, and how to access them, free from jargon or confusing lingo.

Wellness programs often include workshops and other education about how to build and sustain healthy lifestyles. Some of the wellness workshops I’ve offered have included:

• Self-Care 101: Building a Thriving Lifestyle
• Building Resilience
• Ergonomics for Your Home Office
• Beating Back Burnout
• Everyday Mindfulness
• Setting Goals and Crafting Intentions: Level up your achievement
• Communicating at Work
• The Science of Sleep
• Building Vitality to Fuel Your Life

Other workplace programs might include:

• Yoga
• Meditation
• Mindfulness
• Nutrition
• Self-Lacrosse Ball Massage
• Exercise classes

Many employers are now creating budget lines to have qualified professionals teach in-office or virtual workshops. For smaller firms with fewer resources, it’s an opportunity for current employees to share their passions and skills outside their current scope of work.

How Wellness Programs Have Changed Since COVID

Wellness programs have evolved rapidly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Most evident is the expansion to include mental health offerings and overall well-being. With the need for more resilience and the increase in burnout many wellness programs now include workshops on self-care, mindfulness, and stress reduction techniques.

Effective wellness programs are now more data driven. Some companies partner with services like FridayPulse to measure employee well-being weekly. This empowers employers not only to gauge how their workforce is doing, but also how effective their wellness programs have been in boosting resilience, morale, and overall well-being.

Wellness programs have also become more integrated into the strategy and planning of company culture.

Instead of the occasional “Wellness Wednesday” or Friday get-together, the wellness program has become more strategic and intentional. These programs now include leadership development in communication, emotional intelligence, and supporting employees through mental health challenges.

Effective wellness cultures now create the space for psychological and emotional safety and encourage work teams to talk about emotions at work. The best programs create the opportunity to walk that talk, building these ideals into the company culture.

Wellness programming has also become more inclusive, taking strides to support diverse workplace needs.

This can include new parents, those from diverse backgrounds, or a variety of physical and cognitive differences in working styles and needs.

Finally, since the onset of the pandemic there has been a rise in 3rd party partnerships to wellness. Services like the streaming platform BurnAlong or the wellness programming company Exubrancy empower employers to partner with qualified practitioners from a variety of backgrounds.

Meditation and mindfulness platforms like Headspace and Calm have also launched business partnership divisions while companies like BetterUp offer to coach through employers to support employee development.


Wellness has been at the top of mind for many employers throughout the pandemic, creating opportunities for employees and practitioners alike. No doubt these offerings will continue to grow as workers and leaders evolve what meaningful wellness feels like and means.


Gallup, I. (2022, June 14). Employees need high wellbeing for high performance. Gallup.com. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/215924/well-being.aspx

Krekel, C., Ward, G., & De Neve, J. E. (2019). Employee wellbeing, productivity, and firm performance. Saïd Business School WP, 4.

Peiró, J. M., Kozusznik, M. W., Rodríguez-Molina, I., & Tordera, N. (2019). The happy-productive worker model and beyond: Patterns of wellbeing and performance at work. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(3), 479.

Workplace wellness: Best practices study 2022. Returns On Wellbeing Institute. (2022, May 24). Retrieved July 8, 2022, from https://returnsonwellbeing.com/best-practices-study-2022/

The Author

Darlene Marshall

Darlene Marshall

Darlene is a Holistic Wellness Coach who's been working in the fitness and wellness space since 2012. She's an expert at the intersection of fitness, wellness, and well-being. In 2021, Darlene was named America's Favorite Trainer in 2021 by BurnAlong and she hosts the Better Than Fine podcast on the NASM Podcasting Network. She's certified with NASM in Wellness Coaching and Personal Training and has a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She has additional certifications in Nutrition Coaching, Neurolinguistic Programming, and 200hr YTT in Alignment Yoga and training in sleep coaching, motivational interviewing, meditation, and mindfulness. Want to learn more in Darlene's areas of expertise? Check out her NASM product recommendations.


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